The November elections are now almost history. Most of the races have been certified, although a few close ones still remain to be decided.
Like the taking of the census, election time provides a reasonably valid insight to reality -- no more guesswork as to the numbers or how the nation thinks. It is a time when the people (or at least those who go to the polls) speak out. And the nation has spoken.
But everything is not always that clear, at least for me. What did the nation say? And perhaps most importantly, who heard it?
Let’s look at the results, as of the moment. In the House of Representatives the Democratic majority (257 to 178) was reversed, as the Republicans captured 239 seats and the Democrats dropped to 189 (with seven yet to be decided). In the Senate, the Democrats held onto the majority, but the 59 to 41 division in their favor was reduced to 53 vs. 46 (one yet to be decided). And at the gubernatorial level, the Democratic majority of 29 to 21 was reversed, with the Republicans capturing 29 governorships to 19 for the Democrats (with one independent elected and one race yet to be decided).
What does the election result say? Clearly there is a message, but it can be and is being interpreted in so many different ways.
Some feel it is an endorsement of the actions espoused by the Republican Party (although those actions, particularly when one includes the positions of Tea Party supporters, are far from uniform). Some believe it expresses disillusionment with the behavior of the Democratic Party. Yet others attribute the results to a general unhappiness with the state of the economy -- a situation for which both parties share much of the “credit," but which usually results in the burden falling on the incumbents.
And then there is the theory that the election reflects major unhappiness with the direction in which government has moved over the past decades -- the contentiousness, the unwillingness to compromise and the mean-spirited nature which many of our politic issues have been addressed. In such a situation any change seems better than maintaining the status quo, and you can see some of that possibly reflected in the number of first-timers elected to high office.
My wife, Beverly, and I were in Europe at the time of the election. We cast our absentee ballots before we left, and then tried to monitor the election results whenever we could find an English-language newscast in our hotels. The BBC was our primary source, and obviously, they were only interested in the broader picture, so we had to wait for local details until our return. But there were two news stories that we saw that seemed to say a great deal.
One related to the re-election of Senate majority-leader Harry Reid. The analysis given was that Reid had won a tight battle by calling upon factors that seem to be critical (again, at least in my opinion) to the disillusionment that people have with government -- at least on the macro-level. The point was that given his position and seniority, he could do much more for the state of Nevada then a newly-elected senator.
Unfortunately, given the way Congress operates today, he is absolutely right. And it is likely that the short-term interests of Nevada voters would be better served by supporting the seniority system and maintaining the status quo -- although that might not be in their long-term best interests or that of the nation.
A second element relating to Reid was a part of his victory speech in which he said, “The fight is far from over. The bell that just rang ... is the start of the next round.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he had said something to the effect that: “What we have been doing is, obviously, not working. We hear the message. It’s time to shift gears and start finding ways to work together, to seek compromise and move forward not as a party but as a nation.” He didn’t.
But then, the day after the election, President Obama gave a press conference. He implied that the results were humbling, but more importantly, he attributed the outcome to the fact that people were deeply frustrated with the pace of economic recovery and wanted a series of changes.
He stated that “no one party will be able to dictate where we go from here” and that common ground must be found. He also stated that he did not want to spend the next two years refighting the political battles of the last two and hoped to build a consensus. To support this initiative, he had already reached out to those who would be in leadership roles when the new Congress convenes. My sense was that he had heard the message. Now the question is whether he will, or is able to, or is permitted to move forward in that tone. The old establishment seems to have drawn battle lines which preclude compromise and cooperation, and breaking that pattern will take the combined effort of many.
We live in a terribly complex society. It’s not just the infrastructure. It’s mainly because people are complex. In any small group, no matter how clear issues may appear to each member, some of their viewpoints are likely to be in conflict. The key to making things work is not to assure that one’s views always prevail. That’s the essence of dictatorship. The solution lies in finding comfortable ways to compromise. Very few things in life are “absolutes.” Meaningful dialog and respect for the views of others are the ingredients which can lead to lasting and satisfying relationships. Somehow, we’ve got to get Congress and the executive branch operating in that mode.
The people have spoken. I would hope, at the very least, that the need for Congress to start operating in a new and cooperative spirit is part of the message that comes across.
Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.